A brand-new space opera set in a fu­ture world of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and alien threats, by the scriptwriter of Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion. Em­peror’s daugh­ter Mercedes and scholarship boy Tracy have just ar­rived at The High Ground mil­i­tary academy, wher

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - First Read - By Melinda Sn­od­grass

They were fly­ing closer to the Apex cos­mó­dromo. The space sta­tion was im­mense. There was a fat cen­tral hub that ex­tended above and be­low the cen­tral ring. Four large spokes at­tached the bul­bous ring to the hub, and eight mas­sive ca­bles stretched from the cen­tral ring to the top and bot­tom of the hub. Two stubby legs jut­ted out from the base of the hub in a V shape. Each cylin­der ended in two round pill-like struc­tures that looked to be about four sto­ries high. Ex­tend­ing from the top third of the hub were vast so­lar ar­rays com­prised of in­ter­link­ing hexag­o­nal pan­els like glit­ter­ing blue and gold wings. They gave the il­lu­sion that the cos­mó­dromo was some kind of ex­otic space­far­ing in­sect.

Tracy knew that one of those cir­cu­lar struc­tures at the base of the hub held the academy. The other held the cos­mó­dromo’s plant fa­cil­i­ties – wa­ter re­cy­cling, oxy­gen pro­duc­tion, waste dis­posal, and the fields that grew fresh food to help pro­vide oxy­gen and also re­cy­cle the waste as fer­til­izer. The fresh food grown there also landed on the tables of the res­tau­rants that served trav­el­ers, the stu­dents and the alien sup­port staff of the cos­mó­dromo.

The ring was ba­si­cally an up­scale space­port for those mak­ing their way from dis­tant worlds to the League cap­i­tal or trans­fer­ring onto ships to other worlds. In ad­di­tion to res­tau­rants and stores there were also ho­tels, casi­nos, and joy houses, which were tech­ni­cally il­le­gal on a planet’s sur­face, but com­pletely le­gal on a cos­mó­dromo or at a mil­i­tary Es­trella Avan­zada or “star port” as the aliens termed them.

They were again in the midst of traf­fic. Every­thing from wal­low­ing, fat-bel­lied freighters to el­e­gant rac­ing pin­naces, lux­ury space lin­ers and util­i­tar­ian shut­tles. All were dwarfed by the cos­mó­dromo. The ships con­verged on the Apex cos­mó­dromo like sil­ver bees re­turn­ing from a day’s la­bor, and van­ished into the hive of dock­ing bays. Their shut­tle broke away from the pack and headed to­ward the dock­ing bays that lined the cir­cum­fer­ence of the mod­ule hous­ing The High Ground.

The klaxon sounded, three sharp bleats. Front thrusters fired and the shut­tle slowly slipped into a bay.

He had made it. Now he just had to re­ally make it.

They had been met on the shut­tle by an es­trella hom­bre who had told them he would guide them to the quad­ran­gle for muster. He had taken the lead and Mercedes and her ladies trailed af­ter him like des­per­ate duck­lings. The metal deck­ing rang be­neath their boot heels, the sound driv­ing like a spike into Mercedes’ tem­ples and mak­ing her nau­sea worse. She had not en­joyed zero gee. Only Su­miko had man­aged the flight with­out vom­it­ing.

They were led down a curv­ing cor­ri­dor, through an­other set of slid­ing doors and into a flag­stoned court­yard with a view­ing plat­form at one end and jet col­umns all around the sides. It was filled with a seething mass of young men in uni­form. Their voices were a ris­ing and fall­ing cadence of bass and tenor sounds with an oc­ca­sional out­break of ner­vous high-pitched laugh­ter.

That was when she saw him. It was the boy from the beach. His back was against a col­umn as if try­ing to merge into the stone. His fair hair stood out against the dark sur­face, and his uni­form was a cheap pale blue un­like the mid­night blue of the oth­ers. A scholarship boy. He turned his head and looked at her, and Mercedes held her breath, but not by the

The klaxon sounded, three sharp beats. Now he just had to re­ally make it

small­est quiver of a mus­cle did he in­di­cate that he knew her. She felt her­self re­lax. Then her view of Tracy was blocked by an ex­panse of chest.

“High­ness,” the man said, and kissed her hand. The green eyes were danc­ing with en­joy­ment as he glanced at her from be­neath his lashes.

“Hello, Boho.” Mercedes wasn’t a small woman, but Beau­re­gard Hono­rius Sin­clair Cullen al­ways made her feel so. “Let me be the first to wel­come you.” “I rather think that honor be­longs to the com­man­dant, not a mere cadet,” she said dryly, and was pleased when his cheeks turned a dull red. Boho’s con­ceit was leg­endary.

An up­per­class­men stopped by her and Boho, and ex­e­cuted a per­fect court bow.

“Ladies, if I may es­cort you to the front.” He in­di­cated the raised plat­form at one end of the room.

There was a door in the cen­ter of the wall be­hind the dais. To ei­ther side were flags. On the right was the flag of the So­lar League which was blue/green with tiny globes all around the edges, and a cross of gold in the cen­ter. On the left was the flag of the Or­den de la Es­trella. It showed the Milky Way galaxy with a spear thrust­ing through its cen­ter, and over the door was the seal of The High Ground, a space­ship lift­ing on a plume of fire. Its land­ing pad was an open book, and on ei­ther side were crossed ri­fles.

Mercedes in­clined her head. “If you will ex­cuse us, Boho.”

As their guide led them through the milling crowd, Mercedes looked for the boy from the beach. He was be­ing shoved into place at the very back of the crowd by a cadet whose stripes in­di­cated he was a sec­ond-year. Tracy’s head was thrown back, chin up, glar­ing at the up­per­class­man.

The mum­ble of con­ver­sa­tion sub­sided when Vice Ad­mi­ral Conde Sergei Ar­ring­ton Vasquez y Markov emerged through the door in the wall at the back of the dais. He was an im­pos­ing fig­ure, tall and very broad, though some of it was due to a thrust­ing belly. Light gleamed on his nearly hair­less skull.

“Wel­come to The High Ground.” He paused and swept them all with a fe­ro­cious blue-eyed gaze. “This in­sti­tu­tion has stood for three hun­dred and forty-one years. First on the sur­face of old Earth, then on Ou­ra­nos, and for the past sev­enty-three years aboard this or­bital sta­tion. Ours is a proud tra­di­tion. We honor the past. We also train of­fi­cers and heroes for the chal­lenges of the fu­ture. We have al­ways been will­ing to em­brace change in an ef­fort to de­fend the So­lar League and the bil­lions of hu­mans who live un­der its pro­tec­tion. This year we wel­come a new change. This year The High Ground and the Or­den de la Es­trella wel­comes the first class of women to these hal­lowed halls. High­ness.” He saluted Mercedes.

Her hand rose in the ac­cus­tomed royal ges­ture of ac­knowl­edg­ment. Then she tried to turn it into a salute, mis­judged and knocked her hat off. There was the briefest rip­ple of laugh­ter. Mercedes choked back a flare of anger. “God save the Em­peror.” “God save the Em­peror,” sev­eral hun­dred male voices roared out. An­other man took Markov’s place, as spare as the ad­mi­ral had been broad. “I am Cap­tain Lord Man­fred Zeng. I am in charge of op­er­a­tions at the academy. First a few rules. Reveille at five thirty a.m., break­fast fol­lowed by phys­i­cal train­ing. Classes be­gin at nine hun­dred. Lunch at thir­teen hun­dred. In the af­ter­noon there will be more classes and drills. Din­ner is at nine­teen hun­dred. The evenings are yours. I sug­gest you use them to do home­work. No one is per­mit­ted down the grav­ity-well un­til three months have passed. You are per­mit­ted in the civil­ian ar­eas of the sta­tion on Satur­days. Ser­vices on Sun­day are manda­tory. No male cadets will be per­mit­ted within five hun­dred feet of the ladies’ quar­ters.” Or what? Mercedes won­dered. “Please leave through the plan­et­side doors. Tonight there is a wel­com­ing ban­quet, dress uni­form re­quired as the Em­peror will be at­tend­ing. Dis­missed!” Mercedes and her ladies found them­selves in a bub­ble, sep­a­rated from their class­mates by ten or fif­teen feet. At least for now the men were re­act­ing as if the women were toxic. “Well damn. It’s go­ing to be hard to find a hus­band now,” Cipri­ana said. Dan­ica once again seemed on the verge of tears. “We’re trained to im­press them while danc­ing,” Su­miko said. “Surely we can man­age to make an im­pres­sion dur­ing hand-to-hand com­bat train­ing.” Mercedes stayed silent. In ad­di­tion to don’t fail there had been an­other in­struc­tion her fa­ther had given her. Find a con­sort. Pick the man who will share the throne with you. To pro­tect your­self against the con­ser­va­tives he will have to be a mil­i­tary leader. I can give you the throne. He will help you keep it.

To find out what hap­pens next, pick up The High Ground, out now from Ti­tan Books. www.ti­tan­

Melinda Sn­od­grass is the ac­claimed au­thor of many sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, in­clud­ing the Cir­cuit and Edge se­ries. She has had a long ca­reer in tele­vi­sion, serv­ing as the story ed­i­tor on Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion, and has writ­ten scripts for nu­mer­ous other shows. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mex­ico.

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